ANCHORAGE - The Bristol Bay commercial salmon fishery usually peaks around the Fourth of July, but weak salmon returns and low prices are keeping fisherman at home in droves.
Only 1,133 of the bay's 1,883 boat permit holders have registered to fish this week, according to the state Department of Fish and Game.
"Everything is downsized here - the number of processing plants operating, the number fishermen. You go by a boat yard and its full of boats - pretty strange," said Terry Gardiner, a fish processor in Naknek.
Prices are low. Fishermen and state officials said most processors are paying 40 cents a pound for reds, the same price as last year. Prior to 2001, prices had not been that low since 1975.
Fish processors say the problem is the surge of salmon and trout over the last decade from foreign fish farms. Important markets like Japan used to rely largely on frozen Bristol Bay salmon and fish from other areas of Alaska, but now the farmers are the main suppliers.
As a result, prices are low in Bristol Bay even though the run is relatively small.
If the state's Bristol Bay catch forecast of 9.7 million fish proves accurate, the harvest will be far below the 20-year average of 25 million reds.
Jim Browning, a Fish and Game biologist in Dillingham, said the run looks to be coming in slightly stronger than forecast.
Observations from Port Moller, on the Alaska Peninsula, indicate "we should have seven or eight days of strong sockeye coming our direction," Browning said.
Despite its problems, the Bristol Bay sockeye fishery remains the state's most valuable single salmon fishery, paying fishermen nearly $38 million at the docks last year. But the take per boat has plunged in recent years. The average gross was $37,500 in 2000 compared with nearly $100,000 in 1990.
Fishermen are being given longer fishing periods than usual in the Nushagak River district, because the fishing power of boats is diminished for lack of crewmen, and state biologists want to prevent too many fish from entering a tributary, the Wood River, Browning said.
Biologists try to optimize how many salmon enter rivers to spawn future runs, and open and close the fishing accordingly.
The Egegik district has seen the strongest returns so far, accounting for about half of the 5.2 million fish returning to the Bristol Bay region through Tuesday.
With such good fishing, 334 boats had registered to fish in that district on Wednesday.